Customer Disservice: a Terminal Case of Airline ‘Flight of Hand’ and Self-Contradiction
In the 2004 drama-dy “The Terminal”— about an immigrant trapped in an airport for months without a valid passport after his country ceases to exist, Tom Hanks had more fun than I did as I started to write this “Sleepless in Haneda” report, stuck standing in deserted counters C-D at 4:30 AM because of a series of airline “flight of hand” magical transformations comprising bait-and-switch tactics, broken promises, transformations of bookings into cancellations and re-bookings, and contradictory (mis)communications).
[Note: As the night wore on and I wore out, I postponed the rest of the writing until I got to rest (my case).]
At least Hanks got to hang out with Catherine Zeta-Jones for a while. My sole consolation in the deserted terminal: being able to write an article about such “legerde-main terminal flight of hand”, thumb-in-the eye customer disservice, institutionalized service rep immunity to logic (which I have had a lot to say about lately, including about “paralogisms” (illogical argumentation) of customer “SIRvice” and lack of critical listening skills) and what makes it all possible psychologically and organizationally. This time, it’s about institutionalized contradictions in the airline industry.
Now here is the unfolding—rather, the unraveling—of the story and its analysis.
Yes, You Will and Will Not Be Flying
I had been standing, sitting and squirming in the international terminal at Haneda, Japan for what was in total to include the next 12 hours, on top of the 9 I’d already spent the same way, and the 3 or so before that spent flying to get here and the additional 3 or so required to finish the journey.
(As for which airline this was, if you’ve ever flown with it from or to the Philippines, you’ll immediately recognize it; if you haven’t, well you’ll recognize it when you [try to] fly it.)
That happened because, apparently, 1:30 AM was and was not my departure time. According to the terminal information officer whom I asked upon arrival at 6 PM, it was and I was instructed to go to my airline’s counter at 11 PM; but at 11 PM, according to the staff at the counter adjacent to where my airline’s staff were supposed to be, but weren’t, the flight had been cancelled a month before. According to a previous PDF I received confirming my booking, I was leaving at both 1:30 AM and 3:50 PM.
When I requested a clarification, I got the same double booking PDF and finally got one that said 3:50. But to be absolutely sure, I asked—or thought that’s what I was doing—my agent whether it was 1:30 AM or not.
According to a miscommunication between me and my travel agent, it was confirmed as 1:30 AM, but according to one of the many, many emails spawned by multiple “changes”, it wasn’t. Finally, according to an email I belatedly received from the airline at 2 AM (possibly delayed by the email server), I was informed I would not be flying at 1:30 AM.
All for the purpose of flying a distance, which if covered in a direct flight would amount to 1,813 miles or 3 hours and 56 minutes, instead of the more than 48 hours, and the physical and financial expense of 2 overnights (one totally sleepless)—costs compounded by dollops of incredible airline customer service rep illogic and undependability.
In the end, I in fact spent a total of 24 hours before arriving at my next stop and another 14 hours before I reached Taipei, with a one-night layover in Manila plus that full 24-hour “stand-over” in the Haneda Terminal, spent just standing around or sitting like a perched comatose wreck on some forgettable chair.
Customer Disservice Contradictions
How did I get into this fix? Mostly through a series of customer disservice “contradictions”, including abrupt “changes” that contradicted previous understandings, customer service staff assurances and denials contradicting themselves and each other, information officers contradicting each other and my otherwise very reliable and helpful travel agent inadvertently giving me contradictory information twice. If I am allowed to regard the unilateral airline changes as contradictions that evolve over time, the list is lengthy.
In the end, I felt much as Tom Hanks must have initially felt upon hearing that he had a passport, but from a country that no longer exists, i.e., that he did and did not have a passport.
Sorted by their patterns and illogic, rather than by chronology, here’s my peek into and take on the flight of hand, and sly or utterly inept airline management of contradictions, including my analysis of their motivations and forms:
—Disguise a contradiction as a necessary change: When the airline I flew repeatedly and unilaterally—indeed, without exception—cancelled all of my initial bookings with no consultation or warning, the predictability of the pattern infused the “changes” with the form of a predictable contradiction, rather than isolated instances of the exigencies of unforeseeable circumstances: “We will tell you, ‘Yes, you are flying’ and ‘No, you are not’; ‘Yes, we will help you; ‘No, we will not’; ‘Yes, your flight has been confirmed; ‘No, it has not’. The only thing concealing the blatant contradictions was the interval of time between presentation of their components and prefacing it with “There’s been a change….”
However, delaying telling you that 2 + 2 = 5 after telling you that 2 + 2 = 4 does not make the telling any less of a contradiction. Even after it is made to appear to be only a change, rather than a contradiction, knowing in advance that you will be told both means that from the perspective of foreknowledge you will be dealing with a contradiction, to the extent that you know that contradictory propositions will be presented to you, albeit with some seemingly legitimizing interval between their presentation to you.
Notice that, despite any Marxist claims to the contrary, it can be argued that not all natural changes are contradictions and tension: A flower smoothly blooms as it should, a banana becomes ripe.
But when contradictions “mature”, as Marx and Engels insisted they historically, economically and socially do—e.g., the desire of workers to have a better than subsistence wage and the insistence of serf-driver feudal lords or more modern slave-driver employers that they do not, the result is conflict and tension, not smooth growth and unfolding.
Although strictly speaking these kinds of airline changes are not contradictions (because they are packaged as changes), their absolute predictability does make them de facto contradictions. It’s like working for a boss who will always and predictably change the goal posts: “Be sure to include marginal costs in the business plan”; “Limit the cost analysis in the business plan to total and average costs”.
The difference between the erratic, perhaps flaky boss and the sly, inept or otherwise unreliable airline is that in the case of the boss, the 180-degree reversals are probably a reflection of his personality quirks, such as a fear of commitment and failure, whereas in the case of the airlines, they can reflect uneven training, organizational diffusion of misinformation or cynical manipulation (e.g., cancellation of under-subscribed flights, which apparently happens more than the airlines will admit).
I’m inclined to think it is likelier to be a reflection of a calculation based on self-interest, e.g., cancelling a flight because it is under-booked and can’t pay for itself (despite my having been told by an airline rep, as an explanation, that “passenger safety is our primary concern”—which, if true, would make reliability of the aircraft or security measures far less predictable than the cancellations).
This distinction between abrupt change and contradiction is not merely verbal; it has practical consequences, chief among which is that if you view the changes as contradictions, the changes should not surprise you, once you understand that the airline is operating “dialectically”, with your booking being the “thesis” and the cancellation being its “antithesis”, in conformity with the characteristic fusion of logical contradiction and dynamic change that is the essence of so-called “historical dialectics”.
For example, consider the concept of “bait-and-switch”: If you think of it as a merely a sneaky, occasional, manipulative change from one offer to another, you will be far more likely to be caught flatfooted and sucked in by the prospect of only occasional victimization.
But if you’ve identified a store or airline or any other enterprise as practicing it as a package, you’ll understand that from the perpetrating enterprise’s perspective, this is a policy and that the bait and the switch are inextricably, not contingently or occasionally fused in the way that the cover story of “unforeseen change” cleverly suggests.
—Diffuse the responsibility for the contradiction: At midnight in the Haneda terminal, I was repeatedly assured by an airline agent on the phone with me that one or two of the airline’s onsite reps would be coming to help me sort out the mess to avoid being stranded in the terminal. I made my location crystal clear—repeatedly; I gave a distinctive physical description of myself, repeatedly.
I also made it clear that if no one came, I’d be in trouble, because booking a hotel later into the night would become pointless, given the early check-out times of most hotels and the late-afternoon check-in times of many.
I added that I would not budge from that location (which I did not). Repeatedly, I was assured that they would come. Repeatedly.
Two hours later, at around 2 AM, when I tired of photographing the airport clock for the purpose of documentation, no one had come and the remaining airport information officer in my vicinity was unable to make any contact with the airline or any of its staff within the terminal or anywhere else, by any means.
Eventually, a second call out was possible to another one of the airline’s agents who then contradicted the first one and said that because I was not in the airline’s host country, no help would be made available to me.
The sixth contradiction in this protracted customer disservice ordeal unfolded in the days and nights to come—and as an additional illustration of the use or occurrence of “diffuse contradiction”: Yet another of the airline’s reps, handling another leg of my trip, informed me that the rescheduling of yet another abruptly cancelled flight with the same airline had been confirmed by him, but had to be confirmed by email and that the email might or might not be sent within 48 hours.
(Although the “might or might not” part was logically correct, indeed it never came.)
As a business tactic or simple failing, this diffusion of responsibility for contradictions is as commonplace as it is lamentable. Customer service rep X says “yes”; customer service rep Y says “no”. Whether this is an innocent or engineered contradiction, it can effectively blunt a complaint by diffusing responsibility for the contradiction.
Were the same agent to say “yes” and “no”, blame for the contradiction could be imputed to that single source and the contradiction would be addressed and perhaps resolved immediately.
But when two or more different agents contradict each other, the resultant confusion is as convenient as it is vexing. That’s because it makes it impossible to blame either or any of the agents, to determine what the actual policy is and therefore whether it has been violated, to get closure, or to easily confirm what was actually said.
As a deliberate or accidental version of “good-cop-bad-cop” or “good-broker-bad-broker”, this diffusion of customer disservice can be very effective in manipulating clientele, but with the difference that the agent contradiction may be the result of inadequate training and information, whereas the good and bad cops and scammer brokers are always colluding in perfect coordination.
—Completely ignore or not grasp the contradiction: At around 2:30 AM the night I was stranded, the same agent who told me I could not be offered help, advised me to proceed to the customer service counter—after I had made it crystal-clear what the time was and that there were no staff to be found by me or the terminal information officer. In effect, the rep was telling me, with apparently incorrigible illogic, “Find someone when there is no one around.”
How did this all turn out? Well, about 40 hours and two overnights later (including one very far south of Taipei), I finally arrived there. As for that flight from Haneda, there was one final contradiction.
Apparently I did and did not stay more than the allowed 90 days. According to my travel agent and his calculation for my booking, my trip was exactly 90 days; according to the Japanese immigration authorities who detained me it was exactly 91 days—requiring my detention, completion of various forms and payment of a ¥4,000 fine (about $40 U.S.).
Of course, I wrote to my travel agency (at three levels of operations and management, i.e., to my agent, his manager and the district manager) about this, to see whether I would be reimbursed, allowing that I would and would not.
In the end, that contradiction was deftly avoided.
My queries were simply ignored.